Saturday, November 18, 2017

You almost never see disabled people in China

I think this reflects the difference between a traditionally Christian culture and a traditionally non-Christian culture. In non-Christian cultures, disability is shameful. The disabled aren't valued. 

The mirage of 30,000 denominations

A stock objection to the Protestant faith is "30,000 denominations". That's a figure that Catholic apologists pull out of thin air. I've discussed this before, as have others. But I'd like to revisit the issue. 

1. To begin with, doing a headcount of denominations is a dumb way to analyze the issue. Let's compile a theological list, in no particular order:

i) Predestinarian theism or freewill theism

ii) Is the Bible fallible or infallible?

iii) Are OT narratives historical or fictional? Are the Gospels historical or fictional? 

iv) Is God inside space and time or outside space and time?

v) Does God know the future?

vi) Is everyone saved?

vii) Annihilation or everlasting misery?

viii) Is lying always wrong?

ix) Is vicarious atonement/penal substitution true?

x) Is regeneration causally prior to faith?

xi) Is justification forensic or transformative?

xii) Can a Christian lose his salvation?

xiii) Is baptismal regeneration true or false?

xiv) Is the real presence true or false?

xv) Is there an intermediate state?

xvi) Amillennialism, premillennialism, or postmillennialism

xvii) Did Christ die to atone for everyone or just the elect?

xviii) Do miracles happen?

xix) Are there permissible grounds for divorce and remarriage?

xx) Is baptism for infants or believers?

xxi) Can women be pastors?

xxii) Cessationism or continuationism 

xxiii) The fate of those who never heard the Gospel

xxiv) Were Adam and Eve real people?

xxv) Is Tobit apocryphal? 

I'm up to 25 disputed issues. That's just a sample. The list could be extended. However, it can't be reasonably extended to 30,000 disputed issues. Or even a fraction of that. 

2. Moreover, the list is somewhat misleading. There are more general or more specific versions of the same issue. If you think Genesis is history, then the presumption is that Adam and Eve are historical figures. Although you could discuss that issue separately, the genre of Genesis selects for the answer as well. 

Likewise, only freewill theists believe that born-again Christians can lose their salvation. By the same token, only (some) freewill theists deny that God knows the future. So some of these issues are interrelated. Which side you come down on regarding one issue logically predetermines which side you come down on another.

3. What generates a large number of possible theological movements or traditions is not the number of the individual factors, but how these might be combined. There are many more possible combinations than the individual factors that comprise any particular package. It's the size of possible combinations that's great, and not the number of constituent factors. 

So there's a difference between totaling the combinations and totality the constituent factors. The way that Catholic apologists quantify Protestant denominations is misleading and simpleminded. 

It's like two dice with six faces. Just two dice with numbered faces generate a larger number of combinations (36). Yet you can factor that into something much simpler and smaller. 

It comes down to how you'd answer a list of theological questions. It may not be a long list. But if there are two or more answers to each question, then different answers generate different combinations. Yet it's illusory to think that's something over and above the underlying list. For every combination is reducible to the underlying list.

4. At present, there's a plethora of concurrently running Bible commentary series. If you spend much time reading major Bible commentaries, there's a great deal of overlap. Many Bible verses are self-explanatory. If it's a verse-by-verse commentary, then it will comment on every verse for the sake of completeness, but not because the meaning of this or that verse is in reasonable doubt.

Then you have the disputed passages. But in many or most cases, the commentator will list two or more stereotypical options. Different commentaries on the same book will list the same stereotypical options. It boils down to the leading contenders. 

With some exceptions, it's quite possible that we're approaching a limit on our understanding of the Bible. We only have so much new information. There are only so many plausible interpretations. We've got good answers for many verses. For some verses we can't be sure. And that's that.

A new archeological discovery may revise a received interpretation. Or a brilliant scholar may come up with a novel, but plausible interpretation. Yet there will always be some ambiguities in the interpretation of Scripture, so there comes a point where we understand it about as well as we are going to, given the available information, and we have to put what we know into practice. 

In my experience, most Catholic apologists don't read commentaries by mainstream Catholic Bible scholars. If they did, they'd discover that there isn't any essential hermeneutical difference between Catholic and Protestant commentators. That's because the Vatican no longer requires Catholic Bible scholars to rubber-stamp traditional interpretations. Freed from the necessity of defending a predetermined interpretation, they ask the same questions their Protestant counterparts do. Appeal to the same methods and evidence. Primary difference is that mainstream Catholic scholarship is liberal. 

5. Speaking of which, for the past 500 years, the Catholic church has been a major frame of reference. However, it's been liberalizing ever since Pius XII. If it becomes just another mainline denomination, and it's already far along that trajectory, then it will cease to be a significant alternative. Catholic distinctives can only be justified by the authority of the magisterium. If, however, it becomes increasingly evident that the church of Rome was never infallible or indefectible, that then will snip the string keeping that particular set of beads together. 

Visions of Jesus

BTW, I think Acts 2:17-18 indicates that this is to be expected, although it's unpredictable in terms of when and where it will happen.

"I need some drug"

I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief. Do these notes merely aggravate that side of it? Merely confirm the monotonous, tread-mill march of the mind round one subject? But what am I to do? I must have some drug, and reading isn’t a strong enough drug now. By writing it all down (all?—no: one thought in a hundred) I believe I get a little outside it. That’s how I’d defend it to H. C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed. 

Grief is hard for anyone to bear, but I wonder if it wasn't harder for him due to his aversion to church music. Most folks of all stripes love music. Some love pop music, some love classical music, some love both. But his aversion to music left him more emotionally isolated than most grieving people, who turn to music for solace. Music is a kind of mood-altering drug. When a good text is set to good music (hymns, anthems, carols), the combination of word and melody reinforce each other. But he absented himself from musical church services. He had a very textual orientation. And unlike his brother, he didn't travel much, either.

Personent hodie

Classical music was ubiquitous in my childhood. I first heard this hymn as a young boy:

At the time I found it too modern and dissonant to my youthful ear, but nowadays I like the vigorous, angular melody. A modern musical setting of a Latin Christmas carol. For some background:

I find it edifying on occasion to listen to Latin hymns because it demonstrates the continuity of the Christian faith down through the generations. Christians who came before me. Who had their own challenges to face, at their own time and place. 

Another, much older example, is the Christmas hymn by St. Ambrose: 

Simplicity and necessity

Recently I asked some Reformed Thomists a couple of questions:

I've read a number of sympathetic expositions of the Thomistic understanding of divine simplicity, which I'll dub Thomistic simplicity for short. I've also read some criticisms. I have a couple of interpretive questions for the group:

One interpretation goes something like this: on a classical understanding, God's attributes are essential to his being. "Essential" in the sense that God cannot be other than he is. If God is omniscient, he cannot be other than omniscient. Same with the other attributes.

But if the divine attributes are mutually identical, then that generates a necessitarian scheme in which there are no contingent facts. If Thomistic simplicity is true, then whatever God wills, he wills essentially. If he wills the world to be, then he cannot will otherwise. If he willed to elect Peter and reprobate Judas, then it's not possible for Peter to have been other than elect or Judas to be other than reprobate. Thomistic simplicity collapses the distinction between actual and possible, contingent and necessary. God's choices/volitions are as essential to his being as his aseity, impassibility, omnipotence, &c.

Is that a correct interpretation of Thomistic simplicity? If not, where does the analysis go awry?

I received a couple of erudite but murky explanations, one of which appealed to mystery. 

Second interpretive question. According to Reformed theology, God's mercy and justice are not conterminous. Election and reprobation are distinct and divergent. Although God is never less than just in how he treats his rational creatures, God is often less than fully merciful or gracious (in the soteric sense) in how he treats some of his rational creatures. Roughly speaking, the elect receive divine mercy whereas the reprobate receive divine justice. Divine justice is essential whereas divine mercy is selective and discretionary.

Can Thomistic simplicity sustain that distinction?

I didn't receive any direct answer to that question. 


A recent exchange I had with an atheist:

There are a few issues here, first a pedantic one, calling the apparent evils "mysterious" somewhat begs the question, as on many hypotheses said evils are not mysterious at all, but instead exactly what one would expect, e.g. an evil god hypothesis, or an amoral natural universe hypothesis etc.

On your amoral natural universe hypothesis, what's the basis for calling anything morally "evil"?

then Evil doesn't magically become inconsistent with the hypothesis, instead Evil is just the observation of something people subjectively judge as evil, i.e. apparent evil, or evil by convention etc.

i) In which case, atheists can't deploy the argument from evil on their own grounds. At best, they can try to show that it's inconsistent on theistic grounds. But that's the very question at issue.

ii) Since no one believes in a perfectly evil god, whether Christian or atheist, that's a diversionary tactic. Why should we take the evil God hypothetical any more seriously than brain-in-vat hypotheticals? Suppose we couldn't disprove the evil God hypothetical? So what? What makes that any more significant than the inability of philosophers to disprove other skeptical thought-experiments? It's just a mind-game.

how about you engage in the argument/rebuttal

What argument in particular? The evil god hypothesis? That's just a poor man's version of the Cartesian demon. Steven Law didn't bring anything new to the table.

If the evil god existed, that would be a defeater for atheism no less than Christian theism, so assuming we're supposed to take that thought-experiment seriously, the onus lies on the atheist as much as the Christian. 

If the evil god exists, there's nothing anyone can do about it. Arguments are futile in that event. If the evil god doesn't exist, arguments are unnecessary in that regard.

Friday, November 17, 2017

On abandoning moral principles for political power

by Stephen Wolfe:

Exactly what power are evangelicals seeking by favoring Trump and Moore over others?

The answer is this: the power not to listen to the dictatorial moralizing of the East Coast liberal elite who claim hegemony over the general will of the nation.

This is what evangelicals like about the Trumps and the Moores of American politics. They are willing to challenge the hegemony of the elite and disregard their calumnies and moral denunciations. Instead of “witnessing” to the elites by public demonstrations of weakness (i.e., selective “humility”) and by caring about the same issues (and not caring about the same issues), evangelicals would treat them as opponents to be defeated...

So what power are evangelicals seeking? The countervailing power that disrupts the moral hegemony of the elite.

Boys and their toys

One of the stock objections to the local flood interpretation is that if Noah's flood was merely regional in scale, the ark was unnecessary. Humans and animals could survive outside the flood zone. 

That's a reasonable question. I've addressed that from various angles. 

Now I'd like to consider it from one more angle. Last year, Ken Ham unveiled a theme park centered on his life-size reconstruction of Noah's ark. 

This is meant to graphically illustrate the feasibility of a global flood. There is, though, a sense in which the exercise subverts the aim. After all, we could redirect the objection to the local flood interpretation to the Ark Encounter. The outlay for financing, planning, and building the mockup was much greater than for Noah's ark. More resources were put into designing the floor plan, the furnishings, and so forth, than for the original ark. 

Yet it's not as if the survival of the human race was hanging on Ham's ark. It's not as if the survival of the animal kingdom was hanging on Ham's ark. In fact, his ark will never leave dry dock. His ark will never function as a boat. 

In one respect it's a giant model toy that serves no practical purpose. So what's the point? Its only purpose is the pedagogical value it serves. But ironically, that's in large part what local flood interpreters would say about the purpose served by Noah's ark. 

There can only be one

As Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeon was wont to say.

Licona gospel examples IV: More over-reading

Passover and Last Supper

Here's how one scholar resolves the apparent contradiction between John and the Synoptics on dating the crucifixion:

We must begin with what is (emphatically) clear in the narrative before moving to what is unclear. The biggest and most traditional "constant" in the exegetical equation is the assumed relation between the Last Supper and the Passover meal, especially in the Synoptic Gospels. In the Fourth Gospel, however, such a concept is entirely and intentionally foreign. While it is usually assumed that the Synoptics make the connection clear, this assumption finds no direct warrant from Scripture itself. 

It is really only Mk 14:12-16 that allows for the suggestion of a Passover meal connection, and even in this verse there is no exegetical demand to view the Lord's Supper as a Passover meal. A few reasons can be provided. First, the reference to the Passover-meal "preparations" in Mk 14:12 is made by the disciples, not Jesus. While Jesus does give them instructions for the preparation of a meal, he never once refers to the meal as a Passover meal; the disciples assume it is a Passover meal because of the approaching Passover Feast. Certainly the meals are theologically related, but they are also (and necessarily) distinct. This might be exactly what the text intends to depict in its implicitness, with the absence of a Passover lamb (because it was not a Passover meal) making the point explicit–Jesus was to be the Lamb (Jn 1:29). Even if the disciples thought it was a Passover-like meal (Mk 14:16), that does not mean that it was viewed as such by Jesus. For him this meal was instituting (proleptically) the new covenant in his blood.

Second, there is no reason to suggest that the time of the meal in Mk 14:12 is on Friday, for on the normal Jewish method of reckoning days this meal would be on the evening prior to the sacrifice preparations, since the Jewish day was normally understood to begin at sunset of the previous day (as Mark's Gospel makes clear in Mk 15:46). "In other words, he [Mark] was as clearly aware as John was that Jesus held his Passover meal not on the official day, but deliberately one day earlier" [France]. And similar to the Gospel of John, we would argue that such an adjustment was not merely out of historical necessity but also for very important theological reasons. 

Third, the statement by the narrator in Mk 14:2 that the Jewish authorities were seeking to kill Jesus "but not during the feast" for fear of the people's reaction, adds further support to the chronology depicted by John. Unless the Jewish authorities changed their mind (about which the reader was not made aware by the text), this rules out the possibility that Jesus was arrested on the evening when everyone else was participating in the official Passover meal. That is, by Mark's own account, Jesus had to be arrested on the previous evening before the actual day of the Passover.

Fourth, the Barabbas incident (vv39-40; cf. Mk 15:6-14) is best explained on John's chronology. The obvious premise of the Barabbas release–an amnesty or pardon granted to some Jewish prisoner at Passover–is that amnesty was given precisely so that this Jew, upon release, could take part in the Passover meal. The common Synoptic chronology that relates the Lord's Supper to the Passover meal is unable to explain the point of Barabbas's release, for the meal would have already been celebrated! The Barabbas incident only makes sense if the Passover meal had not yet occurred and if the Lord's Supper (as recored in the Synoptics) is not the Passover meal.

By making the Passover meal the implicit background for the Lord's Supper (per Mark) or Jesus's final meal with his disciples (per John), the Gospels transfer the theology of Passover and the old covenant (the lamb, the blood, the ceremony) to Jesus and the new covenant. This is why John (and the Synoptics) is so careful to connect the final meal of Jesus to the Passover but not define it as such. For this final meal was actually the first Lord's Supper, and the only one that would look forward and not back, situated between the "Passover" meals of both covenants so as to make Jesus the fulfillment and subject matter of them both. In several places the Gospel has employed the historical reality of the Jewish "Feasts" in order to highly the cosmological forces at work in the narrative (see comments on 10:22). The use of the Passover in John is no exception. E. Klink, John (Zondervan 2016), 758-60. 

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Age gap

I recently ran across the following observation:

In Jesus' day, 30-something men pursuing high-school aged girls was fairly normal. Where does the Bible condemn it? It must be a pretty clear passage given the bold statements of people like Russell Moore about Roy Moore.

That's a worthy question.

i) I'll grant you that a 10-day weather forecast is more reliable than Russell Moore's moral intuition. 

ii) The rules for candidates are different. It's a case of political viability. In the popular imagination, reports of Moore going to shopping malls and high school football games to hit on girls has associations with psychos who trawl a college campus in search of coeds jogging at night and that sort of thing. I'm not saying Moore is in the same category, but reports like this make one's skin crawl. That may or may not be fair, but such comparisons spring to mind. 

iii) Although Scripture is our supreme authority, there are issues it doesn't address. In those cases, we must fall back on reason and experience. 

iv) Biblical narratives often record events without editorial comment. Sometimes we can infer the narrator's viewpoint from certain clues. Descriptions don't imply endorsement. By the same token, descriptions don't necessarily imply condemnation. 

v) An age-gap isn't intrinsically morally relevant. That depends. Pedophilia, in the sense of sexual interest in prepubescent boys and girls, crosses a line. 

In the case of adolescents, that's a difference of degree rather than kind. In that situation, there are borderline cases. It's like the sorites paradox, where it's harder to state an absolute threshold.  

vi) Some of Moore's defenders have cited the case of Mary and Joseph. That, however, is an argument from ignorance. Mary may well have been a teenager, but the teens represent a spread. There's quite a difference between 13 and 19–both physically and psychologically. 

People assume Joseph must have been much older than Mary because he apparently died sometime before Jesus began his public ministry, but that's a very dubious inference. In the ancient world, many people died in their youthful prime from disease or injury. Mortality was high for every age-group. Many conditions that are easily treatable by modern medical science were life-threatening back then.

vii) It has connotations of what I might call psychological incest. It suggests a man who lacks the emotional security to marry a psychologically adult female. So he seeks out psychologically immature females. In our society we sometimes see adult men and women who lack the psychological maturity to have romantic relationships with people their own age. They gravitate to teenagers or adolescents. It reflects arrested development. 

I'm not saying that's necessarily Roy Moore's problem. But I think intuitively or subconsciously, that's why many people react they way the do to stories like this. 

viii) On a related note, I see the phrase "dirty old man" bandied about. I don't mean in reference to Roy Moore in particular, but in other cases. However, that phrase is agist and sexist. There's nothing wrong with elderly men and women having an active libido. And there's nothing from with older folks finding younger folks attractive. That's just biology. Lechery has no particular age (except for prepubescent kids). What's inappropriate for old folks is often just as inappropriate for younger people. 

Composite revelation

Beginning around the 42 min. mark, Matt Chandler has an interesting anecdote: 

He describes a vision he had of a stranger.  He saw a man with black pants and a blue shirt at a local burger joint. In addition, he sees pigtails in his vision.

He says Bob Hamp was with him at the time. This is Hamp's account of the same incident:

In addition, Chandler says the man he saw in the vision later gave a testimony at church about the same incident. 

So there are three witnesses to this ostensible vision. In addition, the vision was corroborated by what actually happened–according to them. So this strikes me as a credible report.

(Incidentally, notice minor discrepancies in the way Hamp and Chandler remember the incident. That's natural.)

What I want to comment on is that, initially, the vision didn't seem to fully correspond to events. They met a man who fit the description, but he didn't have pigtails. So up to that point, you might write it off as a coincidence. But it turns out the person with pigtails had been his daughter, when she was young. And that family had a history with Bob Hamp. 

Assuming this is true, Chandler had a composite vision. The vision corresponded, not to one thing, but to two different, but related things. 

Suppose some Bible prophecies, based on visionary revelation, are like that. They seem to be almost right, but they don't quite correspond to events. Except, maybe they do correspond to events, but a combination of two (or more) events. 

When unbelievers point to "failed" Bible prophecies, we should make allowance for the possibility that these are based on composite visions. Visions which point to more than one thing or event. The oracle does match reality, but in terms of one thing in combination with another thing. 

My point is not to vouch for the theology of Bob Hamp or Matt Chandler on modern-day prophecy. I think their story is credible, but the main thing is how it illustrates something that critics of Bible prophecy might overlook. 


An important consideration in theodicy is the sense in which what ultimately matters is not the past, but the present and the future. That is, to reach a turning-point where you can say the worst is behind you, nothing worse can happen to you, nothing but good from here on out, as far as the eye can see. Psychologically, we are centered in the present, although our attitude and outlook is colored by the past, as well as our expectations regarding the future. What lies ahead. Looking back on suffering is very different from the experience or apprehension. 

Secular deontology

Consequentialism is a popular theory in secular ethics. Its popularity is due in part to the fact that it has a grain of truth. There are many situations in which the foreseeable impact of our actions should factor in our decisions. 

However, consequentialism is deficient as a stand-alone theory of ethics. A typical alternative to consequentialism is deontology. That is, in part, an attempt to counter the ruthless logic of consequentialism. According to deontology, some actions are intrinsically right or wrong. Good results don't make a morally forbidden action permissible while bad results don't make a morally obligatory action impermissible. Morality is sometimes independent of the end-results. 

And that's true. However, one weakness of secular deontology is the arbitrary ascription of rights. For instance, deontology is used to defend the LGBT agenda, on the stipulation that there's a human right to homosexual marriage or a human right to use a locker room set aside for the opposite sex, and so on and so forth. Or open borders. Or social services for illegal immigrants. And so on and so forth.  

Secular progressives and SJWs assign rights to protected classes of their choosing, as if that's unquestionable. There's nothing to keep the ever-expanding list of human rights in check. Secular deontology is just as deficient as consequentialism. Each has elements of truth, but without Christian values to curb them, they both become tyrannical.  

Departing in Peace

Christian philosopher and bioethicist Bill Davis has written a book on end-of-life decision-making: Departing in Peace.

A few observations: 

1. Good discussion of miracles and prayer. The way many Christians responded to Nabeel Qureshi's losing battle with cancer illustrates the need for his book. Many of them just can't face the prospect of death. They have a very myopic view of prayer. 

2. What he said about Moses and Elijah (54) having a death wish, but God required them to soldier on, is an important point. Worth expanding on.

3. I have a quibble with one of his examples of suicide on 53-54. I don't think it's fair to Saul's armor-bearer to say he turned against God, reflecting a heart at enmity with God. As the king's armor-bearer, he had to go wherever the king went. Saul led him into a situation where, if captured alive, he'd be tortured to death. In that context, I don't think it was impious of the armor-bearer to kill himself before the enemy had a chance to torture him to death.  I think that's analogous to, say, stranded office-workers in the Twin Towers who jumped to their death to avoid being burned alive. 

Of course, those are unusual and extreme situations.

4. Nice to see him say cremation is morally permissible (5).

5. On p37, he said:

The Bible teaches that we must accept medical attention that is likely to cure us of our diseases. As Christ's servants, we are called to maintain our health so that we can serve him well. God's word obligates us to accept loving care that is likely to maintain our restore our health. 

Although I think that's often true, I don't think that's reliable as a general principle. It needs to be qualified in light of counterexamples.

In a fallen world, the body has an expiration date. A point in the lifecycle when it is naturally programmed to shut down. Planned obsolescence. 

Medical science can often artificially prolong life. And there's nothing intrinsically wrong with that. Indeed, that's frequently be a good thing. 

However, artificially prolonging your life makes it far more likely that you will develop the ravaging diseases of old age like Parkinson's, dementia, and macular degeneration. By contrast, if you let nature take its course and died when your body would normally give out, you'd expire before the onset of diseases like that.

I don't think there's a universal or even necessarily general duty to put yourself at heightened risk of physical and/or mental incapacitation by artificially prolonging your life. In a way, that's tempting fate. Asking for trouble when you endeavor to circumvent the design specifications of the body, in a fallen world. Sometimes, oftentimes, there are drastic tradeoffs if you do that. Short-term gains at a terrible long-term cost. So that has to be balanced against unintended consequences. 

Hence, I think we need to take other considerations into account. If, say, one elderly spouse is caregiver for the other spouse, the caregiver has an obligation to stay as healthy as possible until the other spouse dies. That sort of thing. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Problem of Evil: Assessing Probability

Word and Spirit

A while back a Catholic apologist tried to PM me this:

The only Authority on Christian doctrine is Christ, as I'm sure you'll agree. You'll also agree that the Church and Christ are one. The only question is, how to identify the One True Church among all the candidates. There are marks and attributes that enable us to identify the Church. This is not difficult, and you can discover the Church quite easily. It is not a problem of the intellect, but a problem of the will. God help us all. 

Let's run back through this:

Let me know if you want to pursue this discussion.

I'm not going to conduct a private theological debate with a Catholic apologist. Why would I invest lots of time in a futile debate with somebody who won't be persuaded, and no one else in the world gets to see it? How's that a responsible use of my time? 

The only Authority on Christian doctrine is Christ, as I'm sure you'll agree. 

No, I don't agree.

i) I don't consider one person of the Trinity to be a higher authority than another. 

ii) And in any event, I don't have direct access to the mind of Christ. He doesn't appear to me in weekly interviews. 

iii) My authority for Christian doctrine is biblical revelation. That's something I do have access to. 

iv) There's a metaphysical sense in which the Son is more ultimate than Scripture, but that concerns the order of being, not knowing. 

v) Moreover, Scripture is a product of the Spirit. So it's not as if Christ outranks the Spirit. They are coequal persons. 

You'll also agree that the Church and Christ are one. 

He sure is confident about my agreement in advance! The statement is equivocal in several respects:

i) "One" in what sense? Christ and the church aren't one and the same thing. They're not identical. 

ii) Perhaps he means "one" in the sense that the church is in union with Christ. In a sense, that's true.

iii) That, however, becomes a question of how to define the church. He has a centralized definition while I have a decentralized definition. I'm a nondenominational Calvinist. 

The only question is, how to identify the One True Church among all the candidates.

I don't grant the assumption that there's One True Church in contrast to multiple candidates. Rather, the church is multiply-instantiated in Christians. Where the Spirit is, there is the church. A one-to-many relation. It's like color. Red can be exemplified in many different objects and in varying shades. 

There are marks and attributes that enable us to identify the Church. This is not difficult, and you can discover the Church quite easily. 

i) This illustrates the problem when you get off on the wrong foot. I don't concede that that's where we should be looking in the first place. That's not my starting-point. 

ii) There's no agreed-upon list of what constitutes the marks of the church. Catholics typically default to the four Nicene marks, but Bellarmine, the premier Catholic apologist of the Counter-Reformation, said there were fifteen. Confessional Calvinists have a different list. For instance:

“The marks by which the true Church is known are these: If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if it maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing sin” (Belgic Confession, Article 29).

On that definition, the Roman church is not a true church, much less the One True Church. 

But speaking for myself, I'd use a Word and Spirit rubric rather than a Word and Sacrament rubric. 

iii) I don't grant the authority of the Nicene council to dictate the marks of the church. That's not my standard of comparison. And it's a circular appeal. The Nicene bishops only had the authority to dictate the marks of the church if you view them as authoritative representatives of the One True Church–which assumes the very issue in dispute.

iv) And it's circular in another respect inasmuch as Catholic apologists always define the marks of the church to include the church of Rome while excluding Protestants. 

v) Even if, for argument's sake, I used that frame of reference, it's doubtful that all the Nicene bishops defined "one," "holy," "Catholic," and "apostolic" the same way. 

vi) In theory, I might be able to operate within the Nicene paradigm if I glossed the marks with necessary caveats, but the four Nicene marks are arbitrary, and it's highly inefficient to tweak a flawed paradigm. 

This illustrates the challenge of reasoning with so many lay Catholic pop apologists. They have so many layers of assumptions to peel away.

Is the pope a liberal Protestant?

In the world but not of the world

A perennial issue is the relationship between the church and the world. That ranges a long a continuum. At one end is the Amish paradigm of separation. Literal, physical separation. A quarantine model. It treats the world like a pathogen, and the church like an island. 

There are, however, basic problems with that model. You can take Christians out of the world, but you can't take the world out of Christians. We're infected. We're carriers. We bring that with us into the compound. Pretty soon, the world is reborn on the island. 

Moreover, it eliminates our duty to maintain a public witness to the world. 

At the other end of the spectrum are modernists. They are chameleons. They blend into the cultural background. They change colors when the intellectual environment changes. 

For them, there's no substantive distinction between the church and the world. They take their cue from the cultural elite. If the elites say miracles never happen, modernists comply by offering a secularized interpretation of the Bible. Likewise, whenever Bible ethics conflict with secular ethics, modernists adopt secular ethics. Not surprisingly, denominations like that are dying because there's no justification for their existence. 

In-between, we might view the church as a fortified city with a drawbridge over the moat. Christians live in the city, but work in the world. They come and go. They leave the city during the day, but return at night. 

They alternate. In the world, but not of the world. They have an existence distinct from the world without sealing themselves off from the world. Their presence is a witness to the world. 

Dropping the metaphor, what keeps them distinct is the combined influence of Word and Spirit. The Bible gives them a different frame of reference. An alternate vision. An alternate identity. A different roadmap. A different destination. 

The Spirit gives them grace and faith for the journey. Preserves their distinct identity. 

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Empty suits

Christian apologist and biologist Jonathan McLatchie recently dueled with a Street Epistemologist: 

Street Epistmology is a wedge tactic devised by militant atheist and hack philosopher Peter Boghossian. His elvish little helpers have been dutifully implementing their Master's program. The idea is to make Christians admit doubt under questioning, then use that aperture to widen the opening, in hopes of talking them out of their faith. In the course of the comment thread on Facebook, I had impromptu exchanges with two Street Epistemologists. It rapidly becomes manifest that they are empty suits. 

(I've reformatted the exchange for clarity.) 

Our moral witness

Controversies like the Roy Moore affair raise two kinds of issues: topical issues specific to that particular choice or situation; in addition, they illustrate general issues and principles in ethics and decision-making. I think the Alabama Senate race is probably a lost cause at this juncture (although it's certainly worth salvaging if at all possible), but another reason to comment on controversies like this is because they raise issues of perennial interest. With that I mind, I'll comment on a post by Denny Burk:

Moral Clarity and Witness are the Priority, not Politics

As Christians, our first response to such allegations should not be a political calculus. Our first response should be horrified compassion for those traumatized by sexual misconduct. And that response should also include moral clarity and consistency. The balance of the United States Senate is not our chief concern. Our witness is. More than anything, we must be concerned to bear witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ and to its transforming power. That witness is undermined when God’s truth is set aside for any reason, much more for worldly political ends.

Yesterday before these most recent allegations came forth, Albert Mohler made the following remarks on The Briefing:

We also understand a particular responsibility to defend the defenseless and to speak up for those who need that defense, and we must make very clear that predatory sexual behavior, especially predatory sexual behavior addressed to a child, to a minor, is absolutely heinous, reprehensible, and cannot be accepted by any morally sane society. Even in our sexually confused age, we should be thankful for the fact that there is at least enough residual moral sense in the American people that they understand that any contact by an adult male with a minor female, or for that matter you could even change the genders, it’s absolutely wrong, immoral, and unacceptable. So we should at least state that about the charges right up front: If indeed the allegations are true, they are genuinely, morally devastating and they should be politically devastating as well.

I couldn’t agree more. Every person who names Jesus as Lord should agree as well.

i) I don't know if Denny is using "witness" in reference to moral witness or evangelistic witness. He says things that seem to cover both categories. 

ii) Is he using moral witness in the sense of moral credibility? Does he think lack of moral consistency (as he deems it) damages our moral credibility? Is that what he's angling at? 

iii) If so, what's his source and standard of moral witness or moral credibility? Is it public opinion? The impression that evangelical social conservatives are hypocritical and/or worldly? 

If that's what he has in mind, then his objection is highly problematic. For one thing, it begs the question of what is the moral thing to do in situations like this. 

iv) In addition, it's circular. By that I mean, he and like-minded critics (e.g. Albert Mohler, Russell Moore) are reinforcing popular prejudice. They agree with outside observers who think the (alleged) lack of moral consistency damages the moral credibility of evangelicals. 

But should public perception be our benchmark? Certain positions may indeed erode our moral credibility in the eyes of unbelievers, but the question is whether their judgment is sound. We have a duty to correct the moral confusions of the pop culture. Their knee-jerk reaction to our positions is not the touchstone.

iv) Denny says our "first" response to such allegations shouldn't be a "political calculus". But it's unclear where a political calculus figures in his position at all. 

He says "the balance of the United States Senate is not our chief concern," yet he approvingly quotes Mohler's statement that "we also understand a particular responsibility to defend the defenseless and to speak up for those who need that defense." 

But in that event his position is myopic and contradictory. It's not as if the balance of power in the US Senate has no bearing on our responsibility to defend the defenseless. 

There's more than one defenseless group to take into account. Many innocent individuals as well as entire classes of people will be hurt, and have been hurt, when Democrats are in charge. It is woefully and willfully shortsighted to imagine that a shift in the balance of power won't be detrimental to Americans who've suffered, and will suffer, under the oppressive policies of the secular progressives. 

Social ethics is not equivalent to "worldly political ends". Law and public policy intersect with social ethics. That can't be compartmentalized. Morality and "politics" overlap. 

v) On the face of it, Denny is subverting moral clarity. Our positions can't be dictated by public perception. Rather, we need to explain the reasoning behind our positions. Our moral witness can't be hostage to the thoughtless and uninformed reactions of the general public. Their first impressions are morally unreliable.